URBAN GORILLA

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USC Asia Architecture & Urbanism Study Abroad Program

The Symbiosis Between Information Technology and Cultural Interactions

“While advances like the telephone and automobile clearly had wide-ranging impacts on the twentieth-century city, the recent wave of information technology promises to prove many more”- Scott Page and Brian Phillips, Urban Interfaces Designing the In-Between

Technology has become so vital in our lives that it facilitates almost everything around us. It allows us to gather information and increase our awareness of different programs as the distribution of communication, interaction and information is constantly morphing on a day-to-day basis. It now holds a greater presence within our lives more than ever.

As cities are shifting towards technology based, the physical city and its inhabitants are relying on the developing network of communication infrastructures. Cities including Tokyo and Seoul have fully immersed into this concept. Tokyo’s transit stations, in particular Shibuya Station, are catering to its population density, entertainment, and commercial intensity. The city has tapped into digital technology resulting in its commercial centrality to reflect human patterns and culture. Seoul has immersed itself into a completely wireless city- regardless of the location within the city, one is guaranteed to have access to a wi-fi network above ground and below ground (ie. metro subways). The web presence is substantial, unlike any other city I have visited. Upon landing into the ICN Airport, I was immediately connected to the internet via iPhone. I had no network data yet the internet allowed me to stay connected- I was “in the network” and I was connected up until my departure one week later.

Information is constantly being created and distributed. Heavily influenced by “the perspectives of media, speed, and personal perception”, the representation of our world impacts the way in which we design (61). The evolution of technology affects the way we conceptualize design. With vertical and horizontal connections, the vertical builds upwards as the horizontal allows information technology to spread among the landscape through infrastructure.

Connections are formed between networks of the urban fabric or physical beings such as social networks. Formed communities via the web have created spatial constraints as they manipulate the manner in which the user desires to be apart of something. The downfall is that physical impacts are decreased which then blurs the distinction between virtual and physical space as location-awareness diminishes. The virtual interface focuses on the particular needs of the individual catering to personal environments. We are influenced by the physical form that acts as a vehicle for “modulating streams of images (62)”. Projected images such as advertisements or entertainment media instill in the user a desire to match what they see. Advertisements for reconstructive surgery were plastered all over Seoul. A city known for its surge in aesthetic surgery clinics, there is a need to perfect the physical form. The persuasive ads to achieve a ‘specific look’ send underlying messages of pressure to cave into the generic. As the city conforms based on economic exchange, this need for personalization overrides the importance of the collective users. The quantity versus the individual places the individual under the generic, simply a number within the population.

The need to regenerate the technological based society means that the system will collapse, it does not have the ability to personalize. It all reverts back to the idea that money is a driver for culture. There is a desire to discover new advanced technology as this has a direct correlation to power. The more information given and known keeps the distribution of communication going tapping into the culture that feeds into this phenomenon.

11/26/2013 Paula M Narvaez

Filed under: Architecture, Culture, Japan, Korea, Tokyo, Urbanism, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Tourist Wonders or Architecture Blunders?

The Summer Palace replica in the Pearl River Delta getting a fresh coat of paint

From knock-off purses, to fake Apple stores, to replicas of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and the Summer Palace, China has it all.  Although tourists like myself may hunt for a good fake designer purse or pair of sunglasses, when it comes to experiencing the sights and history of a place, there is no acceptable substitute for the authentic.  Many tourists will tolerate or even seek out a few must-see gimmicks, yet these showy displays occupy a secondary status to experiencing the truly cultural experiences present in a particular locale.  Indeed, it is the placement of these showy displays and other mass appeal spectacles within the cultural and historical context of a locale that provides greater meaning to them.  For example, while I enjoyed the gaudiness of the Hong Kong light show, the value that I pulled from this experience did not come from my shallow enjoyment of strobe lights moving in sync to an annoyingly catchy tune, but rather from my understanding of this experience as a part of the larger historically and culturally rich fabric of Hong Kong.  At the heart of the rich culture that I experienced during my exploration of Hong Kong is the everyday lives of the people who work and reside here, rather than from extravagant tourist attractions that make a spectacle of history.  Yet, during my first foray into the Pearl River Delta region of China, I found that, unlike Hong Kong, the commoditization of culture as spectacle often obscured any connection with the authentic history I was in search of.  From my experience, I concluded that, in many ways, China is similar to the fake designed bags that permeate the country.  From a distance, one is impressed by its apparent authenticity, but on closer inspection, the mediocre detailing gives it away as a real-fake.

The speed at which China is advancing, razing old structures, and constructing new infrastructure is astounding.  This rapid proliferation of new infrastructure within the expanding Chinese metropolises is motivated by the desire to manufacture spectacle.  China appears intent on creating the illusion of wealth and prominence because it is confident that this image will spur further investment in and growth of their economy.

For the most part the display of designer buildings is impressive as long as you maintain a sensible viewing distance from the structure or remove your glasses so as to remain ignorant of the clumsy construction details.  However, my real complaint regarding the value that the Chinese place on the spectacle of the new is how this value assessment has negatively impacted the preservation, understanding, and appreciation of the role of history in their society.  This dilemma is particularly evident in the response to the mass devastation that occurred during the Cultural Revolution.  With many of China’s historic landmarks either damaged or destroyed, the Chinese were faced with the challenge of how to repair the rift in its history left by what was lost.  Unfortunately, the same technique and value judgment that is placed on the new infrastructure is applied to the restoration of the old.  Therefore, the same poor detailing that is evident in the seam of a curved glass railing of Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House is also visible in the questionable mitered brick corner of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Childhood home.

Detailing Blunder in Zaha Hadid's Guangzhou Opera House

Mitered brick corner in replica of Dr. Sun Yat-sen's childhood home

Apart from the prevalence of painfully amateur architectural details, the critical problem in the restoration of these historic sights is that these efforts appear to be more focused on redesigning or improving these landmarks so that they are more in line with the value that the Chinese place on the new rather than reconstructing them in a way appropriate to the design and age of the original.  For example, while visiting the former site of the historic Panyu Pao Mo garden in the suburb of Guangzhou, I was unpleasantly surprised by the flashing LED light eyes of the life-sized dragon that confronted me.

Needless to say, after two straight weeks full of this kind of spectacle I began to become frustrated and mildly disgusted by what I regarded as a flagrant mockery of China’s rich cultural history.  It was at this point that a comment made by another caused me to question whether my skeptical view was fair.  I realized that I was judging the Chinese’s representation of their history without regard to the impact that the damage to and destruction of many important relics and landmarks of their history during the cultural revolution had on their current attempts to design and construct new buildings and repair damaged landmarks.  As Guy Debord discusses in his work, “Negation and Consumption in the Cultural Sphere,” the function of the spectacle is “to bury history in culture.”  So for the Chinese, the spectacle of culture is used to conceal a lack of  physical relics of their history following the Cultural Revolution.  So, while their efforts at restoration may seem pitiful to the critical eye of a western architecture student, one must look at their efforts with a certain degree of leniency and compassion since their actions are merely attempts to repair the unfathomable loss of history that they experienced and to try to recreate something for which little or no records exist.  Therefore, what right do I have to judge their efforts?

– DEM

Filed under: Architectural Spectacle, Authenticity, China, Culture, everyday, Fabric, history, Hong Kong

The Cost of Culture

While the procession of luxury brands Gucci, Prada, Chanel and Dior had me dreaming of Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, or New York City’s Fifth Avenue, it was the man who spat on the sidewalk beside me that roused me back to reality in Shenzhen, China.  As I soon discovered, this experience constituted my first glimpse of the juxtaposition of the raw with the refined that would come to characterize my foray into the Pearl River Delta (PRD).

The contrasting social and economic condition that pervades the PRD is a direct byproduct of the speed at which this region has morphed from farmland into an economic powerhouse.  This rapid pace of development is a double-edged sword, however, that fosters the dramatic growth of metropolises like Shenzhen and Guangzhou, bringing jobs, financial resources, and improved infrastructure to these locales while simultaneously posing a dangerous threat to the cultural legacy of the region.

Traveling through the Pearl River Delta, it became quickly apparent that the Chinese government’s implementation of Central Business Districts (CBDs) within cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou has been instrumental in spurring this transformational momentum.  The premise of the CBD was to manufacture the appearance of wealth and stability in order to attract more wealth to the region in the form of foreign investments.  To achieve this appearance, the Chinese government channeled the necessary funds into constructing and branding a concentrated region in a way that inspired the respect and trust of western investors.   As intended, foreign investors responded to this marketing tactic by becoming interested in the region and investing money in it.  This influx of foreign capital stimulated growth that in turn generated more wealth in the region.

As the success of Shenzhen and Guangzhou illustrates, however, appearances can be dangerously deceiving.  While the allure of big names like Prada, Ferrari, and Koolhaas captivated Western investors, many remained blissfully unaware of the real life struggles of the working-class farmers who dominated the Pearl River Delta a mere thirty years ago.  For the most part, this rural past remains hidden behind this ostentatious façade of wealth.  As the financial capital continued to flow into the cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou, these cities began to expand beyond the boundaries of the CBDs.  As this occurred, the citizens quickly abandoned their farming and industrial roots for the embrace of the wealth associated with the growing metropolises.  These metropolises then mutated as rapidly as the Central Business Districts that spurred them had been manufactured.  The obsession with money that drives these metropolises was intensified in Shenzhen and Guangzhou by the incredible speed in which wealth was acquired and exchanged, drastically altering a generation of citizens’ ways of life almost overnight.  As Georg Simmel articulates in his work, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,”

“Money, with all its colorlessness and indifference, becomes the common denominators of all values; irreparably it hallows out the core of things, their individuality, their specific value, their incomparability.”

While the designer stores which plaster the streets of Shenzhen portray an aura of wealth and sophistication that the metropolis is marketing, the Chanel boutique here could just as easily be the Chanel store in Paris, New York or Beverly Hills.  These high-end chains only reference their own brand and not their position within a specific urban fabric.  Beyond the façade of wealth in Shenzhen and Guangzhou lies the painfully sterile reality that the almost overnight accumulation of wealth has blinded the citizens to the many aspects of their culture and history that are valuable and that make them unique.   The rush to achieve wealth and development has obscured the value and necessity of balancing progress with preserving and, at times, assimilating the cultural attributes of a society which gives it a unique identity.  What is left in the wake of this rapid transformation are periodic reminders of the culture, such as the raw rural mannerisms that are alien to the new face of the mutating metropolis.

View atop a Kaiping Diaolou

It was not until I experienced the no man’s land that still exists between Shenzhen and Guangzhou that I began to comprehend the self-sustaining lifestyle that these mutating metropolises continue to encroach upon.  Here, the undisturbed landscape camouflages the World Heritage protected villages of Kaiping.  The tops of the towering Diaolou houses are the sole indicator of the intricate, western influenced villages that lie beyond.  The Daiolous were built by the villagers as a means of defense against bandits.  At the turn of the Twentieth Century, the villages were populated by newly wealthy Chinese who returned from working in Europe and the Americas to build homes for their families inspired by Western Architecture.  Walking through these tranquil villages I was captivated by the villagers simple, self-sufficient lifestyle.  This way of life has become foreign to those who populate the metropolis, each contributing a single skill within the highly specialized market economy.  The crude mannerisms have become the sole unfortunate link between the people’s raw past and refined future.  Looking out from atop one of the Daiolou houses the beauty that exists in the simplicity of the village lifestyle made me to question whether the rapid mutation of metropolises in the PRD has caused the urban population to disengage from the value of their former way of life.

– DEM

Filed under: China, Culture, George Simmel, Metropolis, Shenzhen

Revitalized by Programming

Buildings go through life cycles, a time period in which the use of the building no longer suites its original purpose. Some developers choose to knock down and start over, but others choose a different approach by reprogramming, and creating a new life out of something that flat lined. Here in China, we have seen a couple of precedents that reexamined the potential for old warehouses, by converting them into trendy creative industries.

Through gentrification, old warehouse districts have been converted into lofts, studios, galleries, cafes, shops, event spaces, and coffee houses. By tailoring these projects towards artists, collectors, and the public, these districts start to become thriving communities, allowing artists to live and work amongst their clients and other artists. These vibrant settings bring people from all over to appreciate artwork, and also to support the parasitic programs. Through successful gentrification, these creative industries become their own ecosystems that support art and the community.

We had the opportunity to visit a couple creative industries in China, The first one we visited was called OCT in Shenzhen, which was designed by Urbanus. Looking at an old warehouse district they were able to use the shells of the existing buildings, and retrofit them with gallery spaces, creative offices, lofts, and cafes. A steel and glass network of bridges, corridors, and storefronts, parasitically connect and feeds off of the existing fabric. This parasitic network grows through the different warehouses creating a communal public space that connects the multitude of retrofitted loft buildings. This contrast of new and old creates this distinctive texture that allows the two systems to be understood for their individual characteristics, and collectively as a way to create a unique public condition. The project is still under construction, but one could imagine these parasitic connections filled with people actively participating and being a part of the creative industry.

798 district in Beijing, created a creative industry by taking over an old artillery factory that was no longer used for manufacturing. 798’s quaint town atmosphere is created through its different street scales including: a major artery cutting through the district, side streets focusing on a smaller more intimate scale, and pedestrian friendly alleyways full of tiny shops, and art. The streets are lined with galleries marked by intricate entryways that carve into the old fabric, giving a fresh edge and identity to the individual warehouses. As you move from gallery to gallery you pass through a series of vaulted spaces and pristine white walls, contrasting the rough brick and aged wood. This district creates more of an attraction than a community, but the specificity allows the creative industry to be very unique, and engaging to the public. By taking out the sterile atmosphere and high admission fees, 798 creates a completely different setting for art that in my opinion, can become more appealing to a broader range of people. Art museums have their place, but this different setting gives art a new audience and appreciation.

The interesting design element behind these creative industries is the importance of program. These buildings were designed with the intentions of manufacturing, and ended up becoming vibrant creative industries. Instead of the buildings being torn down, the shells of the buildings were recycled and given a new life. The importance of program is not necessarily in the form of the space; rather it is in the strategy of program allocation, and finding a concept that creates stimulating environments. The ability to create culturally rich, and vibrant public spaces, out of something that was once intended for private mass production, demonstrates the importance of program strategy. As architects we may not have control of what happens to our projects when we finish the initial design stages, but if we envision interesting concepts, and strategic program strategies, we will hopefully see our ideas successfully carried on. If not the project may be reprogrammed to better fit its users, and sometimes that is just as exciting too.

Ross Renjilian

Filed under: 798, Architecture, Art, Beijing, China, Culture, Districts, Gentrification, OCT, Parasitic, Program, Programming, Renjilian, Renovation, Revitalized, Ross, Shenzhen, Urbanism, Urbanus, , ,

Tea is Tea

Walking back from lunch one afternoon I decided to stop by a local convenience store to pick up drink. Standing there, in front of the glass refrigerator door, I am overwhelmed with my selections…. of tea.

Black teas, milk teas, oolong teas, green teas, herbal teas, lemon teas, “wang lao ji”….. WHICH ONE??!

I close my eyes and blindly grab the closest bottle; I mean, does it really matter? Tea is tea.

In my time spent in various Chinese cities, my observations of capitalism and free-market economic policies within the confines of modern China suggest that the modern Chinese society is all about the “spectacle”, an idea Guy Debord predicates in his text “Negation and Consumption in the Cultural Sphere”. Debord defines culture first and foremost as “the general sphere of knowledge”. How fitting that in this last decade, the influx of information and information technology has advanced the world tremendously. Global communications and transferring of information has allowed platforms for cross-cultural exchange, from which China has now emerged as a major powerhouse in the new century. However, with the advancement of culture (or knowledge), the idea of the image presupposes all aspects within a society; knowledge becomes a commodity of a society of the spectacle. Surveillance is a large component of this as cities and government are now more and more prone to monitor their citizens. China, still a Communist government, still employs close watch and censorship over information outlets such as the Internet, television, printed media etc. We’re all reminded of this everytime we turn our VPN on to access social networking sites like Facebook, or staring up at CCTV surveillance cameras that seem to be everywhere.

Now we go back to the tea, how? Culture naturally is issued from a historical point of view and often struggles between tradition and innovation, which seems to plague many modern societies/cities. Debord states that. “Cultural innovation is impelled solely, however, by that total historical movement….tends toward the transcendence of its own cultural presuppositions-and hence toward the suppression of all separations”. Tea, both a widely celebrated beverage and long-standing ceremonial ritual in China, has met this drastic fate in a modern, consuming Chinese society. The fact that this once highly relegated ceremonial drink that was, at times, reserved for aristocrats is now being cheaply sold in mass quantities means the inevitability of that cultural item’s loss of significance. The uniqueness of the quality, or scarcity of the type of flavor becomes meaningless in a free-market system that encourages industrialized mass production and multiple competitors. The individual/consumer becomes desensitized with quantity, and this is what Debord calls the disappearance of separations.

This past weekend we made a trip to Xi’an where I was fortunate enough to visit an actual teahouse. Upon arriving at the front door of the courtyard house, I was stopped by the hostess. She pointed to a sign that said “20 RMB Tea Ceremony”. It didn’t occur to me in that instance, but now reflecting on that moment, I am conscious now of what Debord was getting at. Similarly to Benajmin’s argument in Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the society of the spectacle within the cultural sphere reduces what was once considered true art in the sense of enrichment, to the spectacle within a purely consumer-centric society. In essence, this devolution, if you will, of culture to a merely another product completely negates any real, intrinsic value it previously had. I recently read an article published earlier this year about Starbuck’s discovering that Chinese people actually like drinking tea….what a shocker. Needless to say, this was a market study that led to the recent introduction of  “ nine new tea drinks in China including three original-leaf Chinese-style tea drinks, four original-leaf foreign tea drinks, and two handmade special tea drinks”. I found an interesting quote from the article about the current move from Starbuck’s to “get in touch” with the Chinese:

“This is not the first time that Starbucks is trying to (slowly) localize in China. China Daily points out that there is already a tea-themed Starbucks location in Shenzhen and over the past few years, Starbucks has taken to selling their own mooncakes during the Mid-Autumn Festival and zongzi during the Dragon Boat Festival”.

It seems in an age of globalization, the purity and significance of culture becomes one of the first to take a hit from the ever-changing society of the spectacle. What happens to our perceptions of culture? What is real vs. fake culture? The everydayness of walking the city presents itself with various images and advertisements of “culture”, fashion, entertainment, lifestyle, etc. Consumption and negation within the modern era leads us ever closer to the blurring between reality and the surreal, which toggles the understanding of our own culture.

 

_Jonathan

“Starbucks discovers that Chinese people like tea”,

http://www.cnngo.com/shanghai/eat/starbucks-discovers-chinese-people-tea-224930

Filed under: China, Culture, Debord, knowledge, Psyche, spectacle, Starbucks, Tea, Walter Benjamin

Tradition or Innovation?

Planners and politicians in both the United States and China face a single decision again and again when determining the course of urban development:  should historical fabric replete with identity and tradition take precedence over new development, even if that means slowing or halting growth, or does the economic value of this growth and potential for innovation outweigh any cultural relevance.  The decision is especially pressing in older, established Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai where growth transcends economics and enters the realm of politics…where each new skyscraper, rail station, housing development, or stadium is intended as a statement to the outside world that China aims to be the dominant power on the Asian continent.  This is a tough argument to compete against in the name of preserving old neighborhoods or temples.

In his philosophical text The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord explores this conflict abstractly, proposing that culture is aligned to negate itself.  In the chapter Negation and Consumption in the Cultural Sphere, he asserts that the “struggle between tradition and innovation, which is the basic principle of the internal development of the culture of historical societies, is predicated entirely on the permanent victory of innovation”.  But by which standards is innovation permanently victorious?

It would seem innovation is in fact handily defeated by tradition when it comes to urban spaces.  The 400 meter skyscrapers of Pudong may be testaments to Chinese prowess in engineering and construction but the spaces people flock to on weekend nights are the narrow streets of Shanghai’s historic French Concession, not the vacuous boulevards across the river.  The spaces people go to shop, to dine, to drink, or simply to take a walk through the city are almost exclusively within Shanghai’s historic center.  By this metric then, declaring the new city, innovation and all, victorious over tradition seems inaccurate.

The same can be said for Beijing, where the lifeblood of the nighttime city runs through its inner ring and not in the disparate central business districts home to innovative architecture like the CCTV tower or Olympic Village.  Debord goes on to say that “culture is the meaning of an insufficiently meaningful world”.  Given this paradigm then, the actions of Chinese speak for themselves. People find meaning wherever there is culture, and this means in historical urban fabric.  I would classify this as a victory of tradition over innovation, and not the other way around.

Matt Luery

Filed under: China, Culture, history, Shanghai, tradition

Horizontal Stacking

Extreme proximity plays a major role in China’s culture.

Girls are seen walking hand in hand or with linked arms. People keep pushing their way into subway cars crushed between the subway door and the person behind them. Those few who are lucky enough to procure a seat on the subway sit shoulder to shoulder. In a queue of people, there is essentially no room between any two people.

Not only is this proximity apparent in personal space, but it also reflected by building proximities.

Buildings at times have less than a meter separating them from the adjacent structure. This small space becomes a shared public space for the occupants of the buildings. This space becomes multi-functional, laundry is hung here, meals take place here, and this is also where neighbors converse. The way the city is built encourages the absence of personal space apparent in its society.

Compared to Japan’s vertically stacked shop houses, which while are still apparent in China, are much less frequent, China is much more horizontally stacked.

While this notion of horizontal stacking is clearly seen in terms of building proximities, this stacking also exists within the buildings themselves. Layers upon layers are created within spaces. The further one ventures into a space, the more one discovers. For example, small alleyways branch of of most roads, filled with more shops and people. Past the display shelves in a DVD store, one finds a doorway leading to an enclosed room where the pirated DVDs are created. In the Xintiandi antique district, stalls full of knockoff antiques border the roads so tightly that the stores with real antiques inside behind are masked by their faux counterparts. Through the tiny storefronts belonging to street food vendors, one can see that they live behind their place of business. In Suzhou, there is an abundance of gentlemen’s “massage parlors,” featuring a woman sitting in the front window, with multiple bedrooms through a door in the back.

In Guy Debord’s Negation and Consumption in the Cultural Sphere, he states that “a new division of tasks occurs within the specialized thought of the spectacular system in response to the new problems presented by the perfecting of this system itself: in the first place modern sociology undertakes a spectacular critique of the spectacle, studying separation with the sole aid of separation’s own conceptual and material tools.”

China has perfected its system in a way to most efficiently utilize space. In order to produce room for a surplus of inhabitants, China has created a super high density environment. In an attempt to perfect the system, one must figure out the problem of how to organize this severe density. The organizational syntax used begins to separate itself from what is in fact a comfortable and efficient environment for the users. Are China’s building proximities the reason for lagging cultural and social development? Essentially the entire community is used to this lack of space due to horizontal stacking. Although this may be seen as an adverse affect on the social development of the culture, one must adapt to the surroundings given to them.

An efficient layout of space is not necessarily congruous with space that a user may use efficiently.

Sara Tenanes

Filed under: Architecture, China, Culture, proximity, ,

Photo First, Questions Later

After five days of experiencing the Shanghai World Expo, I was reminded over and over of several impressions of the Chinese culture I had formed so far this semester.  Civility by American standards is completely different here…  pushing and pulling is acceptable in any form of line, children urinating on public sidewalks are common, and drivers are rarely hesitant to run you over while crossing the street.  It was not until arriving at the Expo however, that I observed the seemingly indifferent manner of many Chinese visitors towards any and all content within the numerous pavilions.  I can’t count the number of times that I witnessed Chinese expo-goers breeze through the wealth of information in the multi-national exhibits, stopping only to take a photo in front of each display.  At first I was almost angered by this, but upon further reflection and reading, I realize now that this behavior is not a shortcoming of Chinese culture, but perhaps evidence of globalization’s affect on this developing nation.

Hans Ibelings explains the phenomena of globalization in his publication Supermodernism Architecture in the Age of Globalization and how, “increased mobility and telecommunications and the rise of new media, all of which have been ascribed a major role in the globalization process… alter our experience of time and – especially relevant in this context – space.”  He goes on to argue that the world is “smaller… and closer” due to the immediacy one can experience nearly anything via electronic medium such as internet and video.  It is no doubt that the Chinese are at the forefront of this digital age.  Nearly everyone here is always busy with their phone, camera or hand-held television, on subway cars, during meals, even while walking.  The virtual fly-thrus and touch-screen tours found in the back of taxicab headrests instill such familiarity with the expo that you almost feel like you’ve been there beforehand.  This is perhaps why many of the Chinese visitors struggle with, “the paradox of the expanding world… for while the area designated as familiar territory is larger than ever before, people find the world less and less meaningful, precisely because a large portion of the known world is familiar only from a fleeting visit.”  With “the rising tide of information” it is then unnecessary to waste time learning from exhibits that are much more easily experienced digitally.

To take another stance on this observation, it is worthwhile to evaluate Chinese experiential values.  One will notice that the Chinese always include themselves as the subjects of their photos, as opposed to Americans who often only shoot the architecture or exhibits.  Perhaps this is telling of the importance they place on substantiating their experience, rather than the experience itself.  This is, in a sense, a very symbolic materialization of an experience, which is even better represented by the artificial passports sold at the expo.  A popular piece of expo memorabilia, the booklets showcase stamps from each and every pavilion visited.  The fact that there is high demand for pre-filled passports from locals indicates that they value the “proof” of their visit, which embodies “a bearer of meaning, a conception that lead to special attention being paid to the symbolic dimension”, a characteristically post-modern idea from Ibelings’ commentary.

Whether or not Chinese cultural ideals fall at either end of this spectrum – post-modern or supermodern – is hard to say.  Chances are it is somewhere in between, in the gray area as we have discussed time and again these past months.  It will also be interesting to see how we can apply Ibelings’ analysis to the architecture and urbanism of Shanghai, once we are able to explore more of the city.

Alex

photo:  Herman Lai, micgadget.com

Filed under: About, China, Culture, Globalization, Hans Ibeling, Post-modernism, Shanghai, supermodernism

Urbanity and Cultural Relativism

Prior to touching down in Hong Kong at the beginning of this semester, I knew little about the people of China and even less about the cities they inhabit.  Moving beyond the obvious linguistic and political differences, I rather naively assumed the Chinese would be generally the same in their day-to-day mannerisms as anyone back home.  No matter where you are, people are people right?  Turns out I completely missed the mark.  In the last month traveling between Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Beijing, and now Shanghai I have been nearly spit on in the middle of a crowded subway car, dislodged and cut in line as though it were the second grade, stared at for completely unreasonable lengths of time, nearly run over crossing the street during the ‘walk’ signal, and shoved out of the way while standing in an elevator.

I have been fortunate to do a bit of travel prior to this and am aware of the differences in temperament between, say, Americans and Britons or, even within the United States New Yorkers and Angelinos.  But while I can’t say I really anticipated any of this, the truth is I’m much less offended than I am fascinated.  Given the contrasts between Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and American culture it seems clear that cultural standards are highly relative depending on local history, politics, and general philosophy.

All of this begs the question, though, to what extent do cultural norms influence architecture or urbanism, and vice-versa?  For instance, while some would argue sprawling neighborhoods of single-family homes in America came about due to abundance of space or government policy after WWII, others might say this typology is a manifestation of classic American individualism.  By the same token intense density in Japanese cities may alternatively be attributed to a lack of buildable land or societal collectivism.  With each case, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.

So what of China, with its sprawling superblocks and notably lax social conventions?  By my estimation Chinese culture is embodied in the rapid pace and sincere pride with which cities like Shenzhen and Beijing are growing, albeit built with less than stringent construction standards and little emphasis on Japanese-style refinement.  With architecture though, as with culture, right and wrong are two words best avoided.  Luckily for us, comparing and contrasting provide more than enough food for thought.

Matt Luery

Filed under: America, Architecture, China, Culture, Urbanism

Blinding Nostalgia

In Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin understands that “the uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable.” In terms of a city, tradition can be defined by changes in the elements that describe a city [physical, mental, social, economic, political, and cultural]. Shenzhen was originally a fishing and farming area until Deng Xiaoping declared it a Special Economic Zone [SEZ]. It started as Deng Xiaoping’s capitalism experiment 30 years ago while the rest of China was under a communist regime and is now flourishing with activity and excitement.

Shenzen’s unique city growth conditions resulted as fast paced developments with density and sprawl moving starting from the east and now moving west and even more westward with the onset of the new express line between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Shenzhen’s untraditional city has transformed from farmland and fishing into to urban villages, and finally high-rise developments for housing, offices, hotels, shopping malls around the Central Business Districts [CBD].

During my initial days in Shenzhen, I was heavily disinterested in the glass-clad buildings. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get a bearing on Shenzhen’s new epoch of generic buildings. It seemed like the previous era had disappeared when the government decided to knock down the urban villages. After finally visiting a modernized urban village, I found a grounding that modern day Shenzhen was lacking. However, is it fair for me to use nostalgia and say that the developed area of Shenzhen lacked tradition that was obvious in these urban villages? If Shenzhen is a work of art as a city, where is the essence of tradition in its current development phase of high-rises? Are there certain aspects that still have not changed?

Shenzhen’s traditions as a city have obviously changed, but not all the elements that make a city have followed suit. Obviously, the mental grounding offered by that of the urban villages has transformed into my mental disorientation and discomfort with modern Shenzhen. The physical aspects have drastically changed from the days of rice paddies into high-rise towers. Economically, the farmers traded in the farms that made little profit and became developers that collected rent. Their land value increased after developers started to build housing and office towers to satisfy the demand of the new CBDs and as a SEZ. The social aspect of Shenzhen changed as China established Shenzhen as a SEZ and promoted urbanization. The government has also changed its policies on traveling to Shenzhen by lifting the Visa requirement to access this evil child of capitalism. Culturally, Shenzhen’s demographics have been morphing since its establishment as a SEZ. Migrant workers and people from all over China have been relocating there resulting in a cultural mixing pot similar to that of Los Angeles, with the exception that most of Shenzhen’s migrants are predominately Asian. But ironically, it is the culture that has changed only on the surface and not in its ideals.

When comparing Western Monuments, the Pantheon, Acropolis, and Coliseum all served the public as a public space. When one looks and lists China’s monuments, Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and The Great Wall, they completely disregard the public and demanded containment. This idea of public space was never embedded into China’s social culture. It is still true today with the urban villages and high-rise developments, but for economic reasons. A tenant does not feel inclined to purchase an apartment with public space because they do not personally own it.

Because of my Western thinking, I was blind sighted by the inherent culture that was beneath the form and glass cladding of the buildings. It was my nostalgia and desire for historic preservation that made me uncomfortable with the government destroying their “real” culture. However, it is not the formal manifestation that defines its significance, but rather the place and conditions in which it is manifested.

_Joyce

Filed under: change, China, Culture, Government, nostalgia, Psyche, public space, tradition, western ideology

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AAU FALL 2013:

University of Southern California
School of Architecture
Asia Architecture and Urbanism
Study Abroad Program

Director:
Andrew Liang
Instructors:
Bu Bing
Steven Chen
Yo-Ichiro Hakomori
Andrew Liang
Yuyang Liu
Neville Mars
Academic Contributors:
Thomas Chow, SURV
Bert de Muynck, Movingcities.org
Manying Hu, SZGDADRI, ITDP, Guangzhou
Clare Jacobson, Design Writer, Editor, Curator
Laurence Liauw, SPADA, Hong Kong
Mary Ann O'Donnell, Shenzhen Noted, Fat Bird, Shenzhen
Paul Tang, Verse, Shanghai
Li Xiangning, Tongji University, Shanghai
Students:
Daniel Aguilar
Hong Au
Michael den Hartog
Caroline Duncan
Nefer Fernandez
Christian Gomez
Isabelle Hong
Jin Hong Kim
Ashley Louie
Javier Meier
Paula Narvaez
Ashlyn Okimoto
Tamar Partamian
Samuel Rampy
Luis Villanueva
Krista Won
Tiffany Wu